The WheelJune 3, 2009
For nine years I have been in the same job. When I first embarked on the adventure of running a non-profit that provides continuing legal education for trial lawyers, I was excited and eager; filled with anticipation of helping lawyers reach their full potential, discover who they are and learn to connect with their clients. In 2000 when this journey began, we offered three regional seminars, one month long program and a one-week training program for our volunteer staff. My predecessor was unorganized. No systems were in place and little structure existed. Essentially, I had to start from scratch to create a functioning organization.
Over the last nine years these five program grew to thirteen. In 2009 we will conduct 14 programs. Our volunteer staff more than doubled and our board of directors increased accordingly. I am away from home approximately 16-18 weeks out of the year. No easy feat. The travel, while grueling in and of itself, is nothing compared to the emotional and physical toll being away from home and my wife takes on me. Not to mention dealing with huge egos, narcissists and 17 bosses, each of who has a different perspective and varying degrees of need.
I often describe the organization as a wheel and my position as the hub. I am the center and each board member a spoke. Other spokes belong to the volunteer staff, the paid consultants, our alumni association board, our alumni, the students we serve, our quarterly publication and the various administrative tasks I am assigned to supervise and oversee. Rarely is equal force applied to the hub by each spoke and rarer still is there an even or smooth rotation of the wheel. More often, the wheel is out of alignment, hobbling along. The spokes present competing and even opposite points of view that are often in conflict with each other. Communication breaks down and emotionality replaces rationality. Some take business decisions personally. Some demand ceaseless attention. Many make demands to feed their own egos. All the conflict and stress pull at me and sap my energy. It is simply impossible to please all of the spokes. How do I choose among them? Sadly, few recognize the toll this takes on me. And I am at a breaking point.
Make no mistake, I love the wheel. It is like a mistress that I jealously defend and protect. I believed in its mission, its goal. I recognize and celebrate the gifts it gives to all those who go on the ride. But I am exhausted. I am tired of answering to so many different people, many of whom criticize, second guess or seek to micro manage the journey. I am the one who pumps the tire every day, who maps out the trip and maintains the wheel. Most of the other spokes come and go as their need, desire or time permits. A program here or there. The occasional meeting when it doesn’t conflict with trial, family vacation or more personally important ventures. Few understand the day-to-day maintenance requirements of the wheel. They second guess decisions without any information, history or big picture view. The demand attention and work to persuade me to join them in their individual points of view that are often diametrically opposed to that of another spoke. When I try to right the wheel and maintain a balance between the competing ideas or opinions, to find common ground that will assist the wheel on its journey, I am accused of disloyalty, conspiracy or worse. Egos get bruised and feelings hurt. The mission of the wheel can be overshadowed by personal interests.
What I find most hurtful is the fact that appreciation from the various spokes comes infrequently and from some, not at all. Many view my job as easy, one they could do in their sleep. Few recognize how much is on my plate or how much emotional energy it takes to keep the wheel moving forward. Fewer still understand how challenging and exhausting it is to manage the strong personalities of the stakeholders involved. And those who are charged with helping me frequently make my job and maintenance of the wheel more difficult. More and more demands are placed on me on a regular basis. When I ask for help, despite promises that it will be given, none is forthcoming. I find my personal life evaporating and the wheel and all its spokes demanding more and more of my attention and energy. The pressure I am under is overwhelming. It often goes unnoticed, even by those spokes who purport to be my friends. Is the wheel worth it?
Right now I don’t have the answer. I just know I am drained. I am on the verge of burn out if not already burned out. One close friend describes my dilemma very graphically “I see you all wrapped in barbed wire. No matter what you do, you get cut.”
A few cuts can be tolerated, even treated. But when the cuts get deeper, occur too often or on a regular basis, they stop healing. It is at that point that infection steps in. Without treatment, death will surely result.